Here at TMCEC, we are now more than two months into the new Academic Year, and court personnel are in the midst of completing required continuing education. At the end of October, TMCEC hosted their first ever Virtual Regional Seminars. Over 140 judges and clerks attended the seminars, and everything went very smoothly. Mark Goodner sat down with TMCEC Deputy Counsel & Program Attorney, Robby Chapman, to reflect on the first virtual programs and look forward toward other programs.
MG: Robby, a couple of weeks have passed since we waded into the “virtual waters” with our regional seminars. While there is no substitute for the face-to-face contact I miss by not being in person, I think some great benefits emerged in the virtual format. For one, I loved how, through the chat feature, that we were really able to focus on local issues. At any moment, a participant could drop in a question, and the faculty as well as TMCEC staff could respond either in the class over the camera or in the chat, itself. Did anything surprise you about the virtual seminars?
RC: Mark, I agree about the chat function. I remember we were worried about this early on once it became clear over the summer that the pandemic would be disrupting our regularly scheduled programming. Nothing can replace the actual in-person experience of a seminar (or the in-person experience of conference chicken?), but the chat has been a surprisingly effective way to interact with our audience. In some ways it gives judges and clerks even greater access to speakers and TMCEC attorneys. When questions come up during class, the question is right there for either the speaker to take up or someone else to field while the class continues. I saw a lot less of, “talk to me after class” or “we need to move on” answers. I think all the questions were addressed either on the spot or in our follow-up live Q&A the next day. And as a bonus, we didn’t have to rush through an answer while running to the hotel bathroom between classes!
MG: I also loved that many of the sessions featured team-teaching. I think it helps, in a virtual environment, to have that built-in conversation and give-and-take to keep the participants engage. I also know as a faculty member it helps to not feel like I was just talking to my computer! How did you feel about the team teaching.
RC: I thought the team teaching was a very effective shift in our approach to virtual learning. You and I have team taught various clerk and judge sessions together for what – 7 years? – now, and I think the audience appreciates hearing different voices during the hour. This is not to say sessions with a single speaker are problematic in any way. Rather, it breaks up what is likely a long day with a slightly different teaching method. Remember that participants may be sitting in front of the computer listening for 8 hours. The shift from one type of delivery to another at different points helps the listener “reset” their brain and maintain focus.
MG: This year knowing that the virtual environment would be different, and that any possibility of returning to in-person training may have limits on the number of attendees, we designed agendas that are a little different than typical. We do not have breakouts for one thing. How do you think our changed agendas affect the experience?
RC: That was a big change. I know we debated this at length, with part of the reason being the limits of our technology and budget! In a way, though, the virtual format neutralizes some of the downsides to having breakouts. I remember a time back in the in-person days, I think last academic year at the San Antonio Regional, where the breakout room was completely packed. We couldn’t add any more seats without risking some type of fire code violation. On the evaluations afterwards, we heard that the breakout topics were incredibly interesting to many and they were (A) disappointed they couldn’t get a seat or (B) disappointed that they couldn’t attend more than one breakout at the same hour. Our virtual sessions don’t have those limitations. By going all general session, though, we are limited as to how many topics we can touch on during the seminar. To address this, we outlined a theme for the seminar and each general session ties back and is relevant to that theme. In that way, we make sure each class is going to give participants some takeaway that will help them when they return to court. Our theme this year is “Finding Certainty in Uncertain Times.” We want to help find even a little bit of certainty! There are still a lot of unanswered questions – you and I spend more than an hour in the Keynote discussing them! – but hopefully this is helpful to participants.
MG: With COVID-19 apparently growing in numbers, there may not be an end to virtual programming for some time. TMCEC has already determined that all seminars through February 2021 will be virtual, and the remaining programs are still up in the air. I am thankful that we’ve done at least 10 virtual programs now and we seem to be getting the hang of it. And Monday marks the beginning of our Central Texas Virtual Regional Seminars. Thanks for your time today, Robby and stay safe!
RC: Always a pleasure! I’m looking forward to seeing everyone in-person eventually. But for now, I’ll be chatting with everyone at a regional. Stay safe!